A year after imposing a statewide ban on plastic bags, this week California could come significantly closer to passing the country’s strictest ban on another environmentally damaging plastic product: microbeads.
On Friday the state Assembly will vote on a bill that would outlaw these minuscule particles in products across the state. Last year a very similar bill came to the cusp of passing the legislature before falling one vote short in the Senate. While California may be pursuing the strictest ban in the nation, it is one of a number of states trying to move beyond microbeads.
Small, sand-like grains of plastic, microbeads have become very popular additives in many beauty and personal care products, primarily as exfoliates. They are used in place of natural alternatives including everything from salt and sugar to apricot shells, according to Sue Vang, with Californians Against Waste.
Once these coarse products perform their scrubbing duty they pass through water treatment plants, are discharged into water systems, and then gather in larger bodies of water. At this point they become part of the ever-growing mass of plastic flotsam — a “plastic soup” that is infiltrating water systems throughout the world and negatively impacting ecosystems, wildlife, and human health.
Vang told ThinkProgress that each year microbeads, which are typically smaller than one millimeter in size, contribute an estimated 38 tons of plastic pollution to California’s environment. They most commonly show up on labels as synthetic compounds like polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon. According to the 5 Gyres Institute, which advocates for a plastic-free ocean, a single container of facial cleanser can harbor more than 300,000 microbeads.
In 2014, New York attempted to implement a ban after a first-of-its-kind report from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found that microbeads “are systematically passing through wastewater treatment plants across New York State and entering bodies of water,” and that roughly 19 tons of microbeads wash down the drain in New York every year. The bill failed to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and Schneiderman is continuing to push for similar legislation this session.
Illinois successfully passed the first statewide microbead ban last year, driven primarily by concern over the tiny particles presence in the neighboring Great Lakes. Legislation has also been proposed in nearby Michigan and Minnesota, as well as coastal Washington and Oregon. New Jersey, Colorado, Maine and Wisconsin have also recently passed or are in the process of passing compromise bans in which biodegradable microbeads are permitted. This admission has made the ban more palatable to the chemical and personal care industries, but has left many environmental groups unsatisfied.
Stiv Wilson, campaign director for the Story of Stuff Project, told ThinkProgress that the bills excluding biodegradable plastics were written by the industry and passed with “sneaky” language that in some ways “duped” legislators and stakeholders.
Wilson said the loophole in the legislation doesn’t qualify how long the biodegradable plastic would last in the environment, and that a full environmental assessment is yet to be done.
“Our mantra is guilty until proven innocent,” said Wilson. “Until we can demonstrate from a third party that these are safe in the environment, we will not allow them.”
The Story of Stuff Project is pushing for the California ban, which does not include the loophole, as are a number of other environmental groups, including Clean Water Action, Californians Against Waste, and the 5 Gyres Institute. Wilson said that “a lot of the crappy stuff” that the Story of Stuff Project campaigns against “ends up being made out of plastic.”
“There is a better path towards happiness than buying a bunch of crappy stuff,” said Wilson. The Story of Stuff Project recently released a short video explainer on the issue called “Let’s Ban the Bead!”
Wilson said he is also working towards microbead policy at the federal level, and is currently engaging legislators like Fred Upton, (D-MI), in crafting legislation. On May 1, Upton and other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health held the first legislative hearing on the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
“Simply put, microbeads are causing mega-problems,” said Upton, who chairs the committee.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY), who has shown support for the New York ban, is also pushing for a federal ban.
In response to a report that found thousands of plastic particles per square kilometer in Lake Erie and up to 1.1 million particles per square kilometer in Lake Ontario, Gillibrand has asked the EPA to add microbeads — tiny plastic particles that didn’t necessarily start out as microbeads in products but became worn down over time — and microplastics to the list of Great Lakes contaminants.
“When plastic microbeads leach into our water, they attract toxins that harm fish and birds and get passed on to humans,” Gillibrand said earlier this year. “We need to protect New Yorkers, our water, and our wildlife from dangerous pollutants and damage caused by microbeads.”
After waging a tough campaign against a microbead ban in California last year, the industry has remained on the sidelines for the most part this time around. Last year the Personal Care Products Council released a statement saying they use plastic microbeads in their products because of their “safe and effective exfoliating properties” and that they take “concerns regarding the presence of plastic microbeads in the environment very seriously.”
California’s microbead bill has been championed by Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom.
“This is not a problem without a solution,” Bloom said in a late April about the legislation he authored. “Safe and natural alternatives are available such as walnut husks, pecan shells, apricot shells, and cocoa beans. Some brands already use environmentally safe alternatives. However, there are still a number of companies who are holding out.”
Microbeads only amount to a small part of the overall plastic pollution problem plaguing the planet. Large masses of plastic have gathered in different ocean gyres around the world, including one off of the west coast known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. About 80 percent of the debris in this patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia, where humans dispose vast amounts of plastic that can take hundreds of years to completely break down. As sea levels rise due to climate change, the amount of plastic being flushed into the ocean could rise dramatically, especially in low-lying countries like Bangladesh.
The Plastics Industry Trade Association states that the plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the country with more than 16,200 facilities and 885,000 employees. This leaves groups like Vang’s Californians Against Waste with a lot of work ahead of them.
“We hope to next address single-use takeout food packaging, which has similar issues when littered in the environment, and which also has some readily available alternatives,” said Vang.